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  • Rainey Knudson

Resurrection of the Black Forest Rabbits (436 words)

This week there was news of a 45,000-year-old cave painting of a pig, the oldest representational painting ever discovered. If art is a survival mechanism that draws our attention to some aspect of life, then art about animals and hunting, especially from back in the day, delivered visceral reassurance to assuage our deepest fear: yes, the species is going to make it. We're going to kill that pig and eat it.

Fast forward about 44,900 years and hunting art reached a grisly apotheosis in the 19th century Victorian style known generally as "Black Forest"—originating in Switzerland, the carved wood furnishings depicting forest plants and animals were hugely popular throughout Europe and America.

This massive American sideboard at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, was made around 1855. Bubbling with fruits, vegetables, and lots of dead critters (and of course a gun, front and center), what we have here is manifest destiny wallowing gloriously in the bounty of the American continent. It's topped off with our national symbol—the eagle turned toward the olive branches despite the rumblings of what would become the Civil War. The upper portion of the sideboard is dominated by a large dead stag hanging by a hind leg, and there's a fabulous seafood panel with a lobster, a sinuous eel, and a couple of cattails on the lower left:

As was common with Black Forest-style furniture, there's also a dead rabbit strung up by its hind leg to the right of the stag:

Seeing the sideboard recently, I was reminded of Resurrection, a 2018 work by the Dallas-based artist Helen Altman. Resurrection is an edition of 12 rabbits cast in white plastic from a carved Black Forest-style original. They are meant to be mounted upside down from how the rabbit would originally have been presented, i.e. heads up.

Altman's rabbits' rear legs are still bound, but the animals defy gravity—ears, tails and forepaws all reach toward the heavens. They've also acquired an intense, expectant expression. I don't know whether Altman emphasized the eyes in her version, or whether the original rabbit had the same stare, only looking down, glassy-eyed and vacant.

Altman's work is a small, exquisite mercy. It provides the visceral reassurance we need now, 45,000 years after that cave painting of the pig. Our species has moved beyond the need for hunting art—except, of course, in the all-important service of nostalgia.

A lot of Altman's work is about animals and the natural world. I'm a big fan of it. She shows at Moody Gallery in Houston and Talley Dunn Gallery in Dallas.


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